”One man, one vote, now is that really real? The name of our game is let’s make a deal.”
Warren Beatty directed, co-produced (with Pieter Jan Brugge), co-scripted (with Jeremy Pikser), and stars in this political satire, a comedy drama about a U.S. senator who decides to start speaking the truth. On the eve of the 1996 California primary, though ”the populace is unaroused”, Bulworth goes nuts enough to take desperate measures, and does something that mimics Howard Beale in ”Network”: He speaks the unspeakable truth.
Despondent California senator Jay Bulworth (Beatty), up for re-election, is disillusioned by what’s yet another grindingly stupid campaign. His marriage mirrors the same hollowness. His political staff is focused entirely on snagging campaign contributions. His enemies say he’s just ”an old liberal wine trying to pour itself into a new conservative bottle.”
In the midst of a nervous breakdown, Bulworth goes without sleep for three days and takes out a ten-million-dollar insurance policy on himself (so his daughter can collect the money) while arranging his own assassination. Drinking during a return to Los Angeles, Bulworth is scheduled to speak at an African-American church in South Central L.A. Once there, he tosses his crafted, drab speech, startling both the audience and his campaign manager by improvising truthful remarks instead of the familiar empty bombast.
The anthropologist Ruth Benedict once wrote about the need, at certain times in life, to “speak as one dead” — to state the truth, regardless of the consequences. It’s an interesting cinematic tool —a well-used trope — with which to tell this political story, that the prospect of Bulworth’s death can make him into a new and improved human being, by jettisoning his gag ball and previously-held baggage.
Bulworth’s epiphanies brought about by his emotional breakdown are ultimately caused by the realization that the politics he supports are damaging the agenda he dreamed of. Beatty said of the film: “The underbelly of this country isn’t being heard. They don’t have the means of being heard, and the disparity of wealth doesn’t decrease, it increases. My beliefs — even though I am a pampered, rich, Hollywood cultural plutocrat — my leanings are to articulate something on behalf of those people.”
To do so, he makes a kitschy, bad, white spectacle as a very white man suddenly speaking in black Hip-hop rhythms and tongues, falling for Halle Berry’s character. Does the cringe-worthy portrayal work, to pose new questions, or does it simply reinforce old stereotypes?
For 35 years or more, Beatty’s been one of Hollywood’s most active participants in electoral politics. He also made the film “Reds,” in which he played the American journalist John Reed during the Bolshevik revolution. He co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in “Bulworth” because he felt his own urgent need to sound off and speak truth when most political mouths were/are mealy in the extreme (fast-forward seventeen years to Trump).
The themes he covers include the two-party system in America, corporate domination of economic and political life, corrupted mass media, and racial injustice. Beatty once told a national news magazine that, “The real issue is the disparity of wealth in this country. And this gets unattended and unacknowledged”. The film directly addresses the great divide created in American culture by race and class issues. Back in 1998, it asked viewers to recognize that despite the advances made in race relations in the U.S., the gap between black and white, rich and poor, remains firmly in place, and is growing, not lessening. What becomes of electoral politics within that framework?
Poet-activist Amiri Baraka plays a homeless man who keeps showing up throughout the story, and gives a haunting philosophy for the end of the film, a kind of a taunt towards more freedom: ”You got to be a spirit,” he urges. ”You can’t be no ghost.” What does that statement mean to American politics?
Director: Warren Beatty
Cinematographer: Vittorio Storaro
Editor: Robert C. Jones and Billy Weber
Writer: Warren Beatty and Jeremy Pikser
Actors: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle
Music: Ennio Morricone
Producer: Warren Beatty and Pieter Jan Brugge
Production designer: Dean Tavoularis (‘Bonnie and Clyde”)